Bob Dylan – John Wesley Harding
John Wesley Harding came at a time when Bob Dylan had just been on an incredible seven album run that saw him go from a funny little folky imitating Woody Guthrie to a media sensation, unfairly labeled the voice of a generation and forced on whirlwind tours backed by a band (The Band), for which he drew boos. His last album, Blonde on Blonde, had exploded what he called “that thin, wild mercury sound” across four sides of vinyl, so it was obviously time to tone things down a bit.
As he recounts in his 2004 autobiography Chronicles: Volume One, around this time, Band guitarist Robbie Robertson asked Dylan, “Where do you think you’re going to take it?” Dylan asked, “Take what?” Robertson answered, “You know, the whole music scene.” Dylan was taken aback; he was obviously under a lot of pressure. The other problem was that in 1967, “the whole music” scene had already found its direction; psychedelia, a sound Dylan had nothing to do with.
He wisely went in the exact opposite direction, decamping from upstate New York for Nashville, recording with the simple accompaniment of three ace country session musicians. The resulting dozen songs are amazing, ranging from the crisp country funk of the titular outlaw tribute to the terrifying “All Along the Watchtower,” the later a huge hit for the Jimi Hendrix Experience. A highlight is “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” which irresistibly lopes along as Dylan tells a tale of these two characters that seems to mean everything and nothing at all (it was intended as a parody of what were then called “message songs”). All in all, the album is the quiet morning-after of the wild hash he’d made of the ‘60s. It’s Biblical, ebullient, ruminative, concise—everything really.